K ratom is a drug, sure, but it’s not a recreatonial party drug in the least. Kratom is an herbal supplement that, according to the American Kratom Association, three to five million Americans use for a variety of mostly medical reasons, including chronic pain, anxiety, PTSD and depression. However, one of its most popular uses is to help people kick potentially lethal opioid addiction.
The green powder is relatively cheap and can be ordered online or purchased in headshops and convenience stores, as well as herbal tea bars popping up around the country. It comes from a tree in South East Asia where it has been used for hundreds of years as a stimulant and opium-poppy replacement that can be either a stimulant or relaxant–it depends on the dose and strain. Many compare its effects to coffee, for good reason, both are from the Rubiaceae family of plants. But kratom has come under fire recently by the FDA and DEA–much to the dismay of the millions of Americans who use it.
Earlier this month, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement, “We feel confident in calling compounds found in kratom opioids,” after a computational model showed kratom to interact with the same areas of the brain as opioids. The DEA wants to use this “evidence” to classify kratom as a “Schedule I” substance, the same as heroin, LSD and cannabis. According to the Controlled Substances Act (1970) all “Schedule I” drugs have no medical benefits and high potential for abuse.
Yet, much of the kratom community will say the opposite–that kratom helped them get off addictive, prescription opioid painkillers and thus, get their lives back. Playboy spoke with many kratom users for this story and most of them said they don’t use kratom to “get high” but as an alternative to mind-altering substance that made them feel sluggish, withdrawn and even bedridden, like Oxycodone and Fentanyl.
“I’m terrified of the push to ban kratom, not because of losing access to it, but a paralyzing fear of ending up back on pills,” says Mindy, lupus sufferer and former opioid addict. “Despite my history of addiction, I will end up back on narcotic painkillers if kratom is banned. The pain is ungodly at times, but a cup of [kratom] tea and a heating pad can blow away that life-altering, nightmarish Vicodin.”
Another kratom advocate is a veteran father of two who prefers to remain anonymous suffers from chronic pain and anxiety that make daily life difficult. “When I went to the VA for help, I was prescribed 240 Lortabs per month. The pills did help, both with the pain and the anxiety, but I quickly became dependent on them.“ He continues, "They also made me sluggish, withdrawn, and generally apathetic about everything in my life. Eventually, I was shown to be developing liver damage from the Tylenol in the medication.
Kratom does not make me feel “high” in any way, it does not incapacitate me or disengage me from real life the way opiates or even marijuana would. It simply relieves my pain.
“I was amazed at what a difference kratom made for me in a very short time,” adds the veteran. “My dangerously high blood pressure came down, my pain was brought down to a manageable level, and I felt able to perform better at my physically demanding job. It reduced my anxiety greatly and brought me out of the isolated fog the narcotic painkillers had left me in for years. I became a better employee, a better husband, and most importantly, a better and more engaged father to my children. Kratom does not make me feel "high” in any way, it does not incapacitate me or disengage me from real life the way opiates or even marijuana would. It simply relieves my pain.”
Many kratom users also described the powder’s anti-anxiety effects as promoting a feeling of “well-being” without affecting their motor skills like Xanax, or even cannabis, would.
Beyond pill dependency, kratom can be used to help people stop using and abusing substances like heroin, alcohol, benzos and even cigarettes. Much like cannabis, kratom appears to be more of an “exit drug” than anything else. Because of kratom’s pain relieving abilities, it has incredible potential to help solve America’s opioid crisis. “Kratom is a plant, not a drug and has been used as an herbal remedy for pain for thousands of years,” says Roxanne Gullikson, CHLC and Facility Director of Greener Pastures Recovery House, a holistic rehab center in Portland, Maine that lets patients use kratom and cannabis for recovery. “Our experience teaches us that the careful, intentional use of high-quality, lab-tested kratom reduces the symptoms of opiate withdrawal by 70 to 90 percent in most patients. Most people who try to quit opiates cold-turkey suffer such extreme and painful withdrawal symptoms that they find it impossible to go on and they relapse. Relapses in opiate addiction are especially dangerous because opiate users build tolerance during active use, and if the same dose is taken during a relapse event, the body is sent into a state of overdose.”
Greener Pastures not only allows their patients to use kratom and cannabis, they’re performing studies and building data sets to prove kratom is an effective treatment. “We understand that there isn’t much research, but we have a lot of community based evidence (CBE) on the efficacy of kratom to mitigate the symptoms of acute withdrawal syndrome (AWS) and have found that it decreases the severity of symptoms by up to 90 percent, making it possible for people to feel that quitting opiates is possible,” says Gullikson. Gullikson also notes that Ron Figaratto, MOTR/L and Mary Callison, M.D. creating a double blind study to ascertain and document kratom’s effectiveness as a treatment modality for acute withdrawal syndrome. “The study will compare and contrast control groups who receive kratom and placebo in concert with individual and group counseling for substance use disorder. Outcomes will be published and results may be used to launch further study.”
But if the DEA classifies kratom as “Schedule I” it will make scientific research on the substance next to impossible, just as cannabis is notoriously difficult to study. That’s why scientists have been sending letters to the DEA: They want to continue studying the plant before any rash decisions are made because so little is understood about the plant’s effects on the body more than anecdotal evidence.
In comparison to opioid pain killers, kratom is not really addictive. When I asked the kratom community if they were ever addicted to the herbal powder, they generally told me “no.” Dependent on it for chronic pain or other ailment relief–sure. But kratom will not cause excruciating withdrawal symptoms like Oxycodone, heroin, or even suboxone, will. It’s more like if a regular coffee drinker or cannabis smoker skips a day–they might not feel like their best selves, but their bodies aren’t covered in invisible ants.
“Kratom is no more addictive than coffee is,” says Gullikson. “That said, kratom can be overused, just like any other substance such as coffee or sugar. People can build a tolerance to kratom and find themselves using more over time, which is not dangerous, but can be problematic if it disrupts a person’s life or feels imbalanced. We coach our patients on kratom tolerance and encourage taking a break or a re-set period to ensure that a therapeutic dose is maintained.”
This isn’t the first time the DEA has tried to reschedule kratom. In late 2016, the DEA announced an “emergency rescheduling” of the herb after an uptick in calls to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) from 2010 to 2015. But, the DEA’s move to reschedule was met with backlash from both the community and U.S. Congress. The DEA received over 23,000 comments online, which is significant, and withdrew the emergency rescheduling measure.
Now, only a little over a year later, we’re back to the same fight. The DEA is claiming there have been 44 kratom deaths since 2011 and therefore something must be done. But those deaths are misleading because a majority of them were the result of a lethal cocktail of opioids, benzos and anti-depressants on top of kratom. Compared to the 115 people who die every day from accidental opioid overdoses, it doesn’t make kratom seem that dangerous at all.
Like the cannabis community, the kratom community is a tight-knit and supportive group that’s working together to fight the government’s rescheduling. Thousands of people have signed petitions and there are activism and awareness events popping up around the country. For instance, there’s a march at the Washington state capital in Olympia scheduled for March 16.
What’s more, there are a few "kratom festivals” scheduled for this spring and summer–one in Maine, run by the Founders of Greener Pastures, and another in St. Petersburg, Florida on May 19th. Pinellas County, Florida is unique because over a dozen “kratom bars” have opened in the area over the last few years. Like the cross between a regular bar and a café, these establishments sell kratom powder and serve kratom drinks, as well as kava cocktails, coffee, and other herbal teas. But, like a regular bar, many are open until two in the morning and host events like live music and trivia night.
“Pinellas County, FL is unique in that we’ve established about a dozen of these tea bars and they are very popular here,” says Colin Hollister, kratom user, wholesale vendor, “kratom tender”, which is much like a bartender, and organizer of the kratom festival in St. Petersburg. “I’ve gathered many of the kratom bars and I’m getting them in the same place for the first time ever to spread awareness. The American Kratom Association will be there as a guest speaker. And my intention is to spread awareness and get more people on our side of the fight.”
Hollister explains the different effects Kratom can have. Like cannabis, different strains provide different experiences.“Personally, I use kratom as a social lubricant similar to going out for a cup of coffee with friends,” says Hollister. “If it’s early in the day I’ll stop by a tea bar for a white strain. White kratom tends to be more energizing and helps me want to go, go, go. If it’s the afternoon, I like to order a green strain. Green Kratom has a very mild euphoric effect and makes you say, ‘Hey. That’s pretty nice.’ In the evening, I’ll usually unwind with a red strain. Red kratom is more sedating and relaxing and gives me a peaceful night of rest. While the effects of kratom are certainly noticeable, it’s important to understand that they are very mild. Unlike hardcore narcotics and alcohol, you are still you… Just with a slightly greater sense of well-being.”
Also similar to cannabis, people use kratom both medicinally and recreationally. And just like cannabis prohibition, criminalizing kratom will not benefit society. Millions of law-abiding citizens depend on the natural remedy for an array of issues from chronic pain and fibromyalgia to depression and even hypertension. In general, these folks are “not tide-pod eating teenagers” or even millennials, many are like our anonymous combat veteran, professional, middle-aged family men and women just trying to get their symptoms under control and their lives back.
As for why the FDA is trying to villainize the herb? That remains unanswered. The government’s fervent stance against cannabis–despite growing and rapid support– doesn’t assure us this feud will be resolved anytime soon.